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How Do Oil Spills Affect The Environment?
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How Do Oil Spills Affect The Environment?

How Do Oil Spills Affect The Environment?

Oil Spill in the Ocean

Recently, California has seen one of the largest oil spills the city has experienced in recent history. The heavy crude leak expands near the coasts of Huntington Beach, where marine life is expected to feel the consequences for a long time. But, aside from life under the sea, what else does it endanger, and how do oil spills affect the environment?

Oil spills are common maritime accidents that can have grave effects on marine and coastal life and even human health. And the severity of those, such as the oil spill in Huntington Beach, can last forever.

Environmental Damages of Oil Spills

Oil Spill Affecting WildlifeOil spills affect everyone—from the microscopic phytoplankton to different marine life to wildlife and even humans.

Heavy crude leakages in the ocean have serious adverse effects on the environment. It does not only affect life above and under the sea, but it also exudes long-lasting damages to nearby wildlife sanctuaries.

Here are some of the ways oil spills affect the environment:

  1. Wildlife endangerment

    There is plenty of wildlife, especially birds, threading the coasts—most fishing for their food in the ocean and shores for their resting. Whenever oil spills occur, the heavy crude latches onto their feathers, impairing crucial functions, such as breathing, feeding, and regulating their body temperatures. What is worse is when dead fish start to float, and the birds feast on them, leading to poisoning.

    In an interview with The Guardian, Steve Murawski, University of Florida’s fisheries biologist and marine ecologist notes that “Once the oil is in the marsh and it gets down below the level of the sediments, it is there pretty much forever.”

    So, when the oil makes it to the shores and wetlands, it can also cause the loss of habitat as the places these animals live in are doused in poisonous chemicals. And even if oil spill clean-up operations have cleared these areas, the toxins may have already seeped into the surface, which can have subtle health effects on wildlife in the long run.

  2. Marine life health complications

    Oil causes serious health complications to marine life, especially fish, turtles, and shellfish. Like birds, oil exposure disrupts their respiratory functions and even causes reproduction defects. When fish inhale the oil through their gills, it affects the heart and respiratory rate, causing a cardiac arrest which kills them. It also damages their internal organs, like their livers.

    Several clean-up methods, like blocking the leakage using inlets, can deprive the fish and plants of oxygen, especially those living in nearby wetlands. Plus, some of the oil turns into tarballs, which do not float to the surface, making them harder to clean up. Several underwater creatures like turtles and large fish can ingest these, which can cause fatality.

  3. Unsafe seafood

    Oil is less dense than water. Hence the damage is mainly seen from the surface. However, when some oil naturally disperses into the water column, tiny small marine creatures like shellfish and shrimps, who cannot swim away, become in danger. Although there have been no concrete records of the lethality of oil exposure to shellfish, they absorb enough toxins that make them unsafe for eating.

  4. Disrupted food-chains

    One of the longer-lasting effects of oil spills is that it disrupts food-chains, bringing even more pressure to the ecological state of marine biodiversity. For instance, phytoplanktons are the most at risk during an oil spill, even if their life cycles allow them to recover quickly.

    Ronald Tjeerdema, an environmental toxicologist at the University of California Davis and expert in oil spills, says in an interview with Vox, “We won’t see a lot of dead bodies with those because they’re nearly microscopic, but we will see a hit there — and they tend to be the base of the food chain.”

    These microscopic creatures are an excellent food source for many members of the marine ecosystem. Hence, when their numbers go low, they can significantly affect the food chain and cause overall ecological damage.

  5. Cancelled beach trips

    When you think about ‘how do oil spills affect the environment?’ you may feel that it does not harm humans. However, oil spills can also be toxic to human health and may lead to poor air quality.

    If the oil spill happens near an area where there are a lot of human coastal activities, the effects can be devastating. Fishermen can lose their source of income, the tourism industry will have some drawbacks, and water supplies can get contaminated.

    Because of the oil spill, the once surfing destination Huntington Beach has become off-limits to surfers and anyone who wants to go out for a swim and has been reeking of oil fumes. Local shops are left reeling due to economic loss.

    Considering the damage, some residents claim in an AP news report that it might take a year or two for tourism to bounce back as people are not keen on racing back into the waters.

    Also, if you are planning to help clean up an oil spill, please never forget to wear protective gear. Oil exposure can cause eye irritation and breathing difficulties. Do not worry because there have still been no known long-term effects of oil spills on humans due to direct exposure, but better safe than sorry.

    Oil spills are highly detrimental to the environment. Its destructive impact chooses no one—whether you are on top or at the bottom of the food chain, you will be damned. Hence the more reason why everyone who can take part in cleaning up an oil spill should help pronto.

This video gives you a look at the devastation:

How to Clean Up Oil Spills

The coast guards are the official mediators of oil spill clean-ups. They have the adequate tools and resources to get the job done quickly without imposing additional harm to the damaged area.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the methods they use to clean up oil spills are divided into two categories—cleaning up oil spills at sea and onshore.

Cleaning Up Oil Spills On Shore

Responding to Oil Spills on Shore
  1. Shoreline Flushing/Washing

    This method uses water hoses to rinse the oil from the shoreline into the water for easier collection, especially when the oil spill area is inaccessible to machinery efforts. Respondents heat water to around 170°C then spray it by hand using high-pressure wands to flush the water to the surface.

  2. Booms

    Oil booms are long, floating, interconnected barriers that are popular tools for minimizing the spread of oil spills while acting as a fence. The mechanism has three parts, which are the following:
    • Freeboards: floats on top of the water surface, keeping the oil in place and preventing it from splashing.
    • Skirt: a flexible floating barrier under the surface that prevents the oil from seeping and escaping under the booms.
    • Cables/chains: connects the parts to secure, strengthen, and stabilize the boom.

  3. Vacuums

    These are giant Industrial-sized vacuum trucks for suctioning oil from the shoreline or on the water surface.

  4. Sorbents

    Specialized absorbent materials act as a sponge to pick up oil but not water. Some of the materials are usually hay, peat moss, or vermiculite.

  5. Shoreline Cleaners & Biodegradation Agents

    Chemical cleaners that act like soaps may be used to remove oil but require special permission. Nutrients may be added to help microbes break down oil.

  6. Burning

    Also referred to as "in situ burning," freshly spilled oil can be set on fire, usually when it's floating on the water surface and sometimes on oiled marsh vegetation, to effectively remove it. However, researchers have found that the oil layer must be at least 3mm thick for burning to be effective.

  7. Manual Removal

    Clean-up crews using shovels or other hand tools can pick up oil from the shoreline. This method is excellent when heavy machinery cannot reach an oiled shore.

  8. Mechanical Removal

    When there is access, respondents use heavy machineries, such as backhoes or front-end loaders.

Cleaning Oil Spills at Sea

Responding to Oil Spills at Sea

Photo courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  1. Dispersion

    Oil clean-up respondents use specially designed chemicals to remove oil from the water. These chemicals break down the oil into smaller droplets, accelerating the disintegration process of the oil.

  2. Burning

    Respondents also use “in situ burning” for cleaning oil spills at sea.

  3. Skimming

    Boats with floating skimmers remove thin layers of oil from the surface with the help of booms.

    Remember that oil spill clean-ups aim to remove as much of the leaked crude as soon as possible without imposing additional implications. Hence, if you wish to help out, always coordinate with the relevant governing bodies to learn the proper guidelines.

How to Prevent Oil Spills?

Oil tanker spilling oil on the seaThe increase in oil explorations increases the presence of tankers in the oceans which also increases the probability of oil spills.

The oil industry has been accountable for most of the large-scale oil spill incidents over the years. Since the 1960s, according to Conserve Energy Future, crude leakage to the ocean due to the increasing “deep-sea oil production and explorations, and the transportation of crude oil over the seas by use of voluminous tankers” is the primary reason why oil spills happen.

For instance, the most recent leakage in Huntington Beach is allegedly due to a broken pipeline from a nearby offshore oil drilling site, despite California being a leader in barring offshore oil drilling since the 1969 Santa Barbara spill.

The crude that these industries gather and transport from sea to land is often for industrial use. One application close to everyone’s daily lives is the gasoline or fuel that runs your vehicle. Preventing oil spills can be easy when there is little demand for crude oil, which we are still far from achieving. For now, in small ways, you can choose a more eco-friendly alternative fuel if you can.

Also, the California spill reignites the renewal of existing laws restricting offshore oil drilling, which can be a big help. On the other hand, oil spills have significantly reduced for the past years thanks to safer ways of transporting crude oil for the past years.

In more modern times, most of the oil spills are due to climate change, like when Hurricane Ida left 50 oil leaks in the ocean by damaging oil infrastructure. Hence, despite the better and safer means of handling crude, climate change can worsen things for the oil industry.

In short, preventing oil spills takes a holistic ecological approach. Start small by following a sustainable lifestyle. After all, industries mostly rely on crude for manufacturing and logistics. Mind what product you use, especially the trash it produces.

If you are a lover of the ocean and its magnificent waves, we have eco-friendly surf gear here at Wave Tribe. Check them out below, and do not forget to Add to Cart. Also, you can reach out to some of our partners from our Heal The Oceans Campaign to help manage life in and out of the waters.

Help Revive Huntington Beach

Here are a few actions items that I suggest exploring:

  • Review Surfrider’s “Oil Spill Toolkit” that provides information about oil spill responses. Please note, response workers are not seeking volunteers, and citizens mustn’t attempt to clean up the oil. Visiting the area is strongly discouraged as the oil contains numerous hazardous chemicals.
  • If you’re interested in volunteering for upcoming clean-up opportunities, please text ‘oilspill’ (one word) to 51555 or complete this form. You will be added to a list of interested volunteers and will receive updates on ways to get involved.
  • If you find oiled or sick wildlife, call the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at (877) 823-6962. People are being asked not to approach potentially affected wildlife, as you can cause more harm than good to the animals.

You can join Surfrider in asking Congress to permanently ban new offshore drilling to stop future oil spill disasters. Take Action.



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